There aren’t many people who can claim to have created as many jobs as Birgit Klohs, the German-born CEO of Grand Rapids economic development organization The Right Place. Since Klohs took the reins 29 years ago, The Right Place has brought $4.7 billion in new investment and created 40,000 new jobs to western Michigan. In the last two and a half years, this has included $707 million in new investment, 4,000 new jobs, and $150 million in new payroll. “My driver, my motivation, is the fact that when we’re done at the end of the day, someone in this community has a job who didn’t have one yesterday,” she says.
Klohs grew up in Germany expecting to have a career in retail management. But when she arrived in Michigan at the age of 20 after marrying an American, she found her German retail apprenticeship didn’t carry much weight with U.S. employers. She went back to school, got hooked on economic development work, and — despite initially worrying whether a young, female immigrant would be accepted by local business leaders — took over The Right Place, then a boutique operation with just three employees. Now, the organization has 30 full-time staffers – mostly U.S. citizens – and is widely recognized as one of Michigan’s biggest economic-development players. “I took the opportunity and ran with it,” Klohs says. “I knew I had to prove myself, and I did.”
My driver, my motivation, is the fact that when we’re done at the end of the day, someone in this community has a job who didn’t have one yesterday.
The Right Place does about 80% of its work with local, west Michigan firms, but foreign direct investment remains a key piece of its economic development strategy, and the organization has assisted more than 130 foreign firms with their expansion into the Grand Rapids region. Immigration hurdles, such as the shortage of visas for skilled workers, often delay the arrival of foreign companies and unnecessarily complicate a process with tangible benefits for American workers. “Do we want those companies here paying taxes and creating jobs or don’t we? It’s a serious question we have to ask ourselves,” she says. “They’ll hire 90% of their talent locally, so do we want those companies and the jobs they bring?”
Klohs also wants to see undocumented immigrants brought out of the shadows, and thinks undocumented children should be allowed to receive an education and enter the workforce just like their native-born peers. “They’re here for the American dream, like everyone who came before them,” she says. “The question is, how do we engage the people who want to be part of that dream?” Klohs understands the concerns about immigrants taking American jobs. And though she says evidence doesn’t actually support this fear, she wants immigration reform to be accompanied by better retraining and educational programs for struggling Americans.
The bottom line, she says, is that immigrants are helping to fuel Michigan’s economic resurgence. “The people who come to this country are seeking an opportunity, and to apply themselves,” she says. That’s especially true of the educated, entrepreneurial immigrants who Klohs sees working in universities and research centers, starting businesses, and creating jobs across western Michigan. “They’re all making a huge contribution through the intellectual power they bring with them,” she says. And that’s a good thing for Michigan, and for American workers.